Qiu Xiaolong and the Return of Venerable Judge Dee ‹ CrimeReads
Western China in the late 600s of the 7th century. In a candlelit room of a seedy tavern on the outskirts of the Tang Dynasty capital Chang’an (now known as Xian) sits Dee Renjie. A man better known as Judge Dee. He is the Imperial Circuit Supervisor of the Tang Empire, appointed by a personality no less than Empress Wu herself. Judge Dee has a white beard, wears a blue robe and black skullcap, while sipping his favorite Dragon Well tea. He is out of favor at court, a victim of the infighting between the Wu and Li political clans who bickered throughout the difficult years of the dynasty. He is a Confucian scholar turned magistrate. During his first day of assignment on the outskirts of the Empire, he was alarmingly warned by an anonymous note that, ‘A high-flying dragon will have something to regret!‘. He was also asked to quietly investigate a case whose ramifications could shatter the Tang world.
A famous real-life poet-courtesan, Yu Xuanji, is framed for the murder of her servant at a convent near Dee’s temporary lodgings. Judge Dee’s situation is somewhat toned down – doomed to the endless circuit court system, living his life, he says, like “a homeless dog running around looking for shelter”. Solving the Xuanji case could mean readmission to the inner sanctum, or permanent exile to the fringes of the Empire, moving from one scrofulous inn to another. The Xuanji case appeals to his intellect and because he appreciates his poetry, when, he has to admit, the daily life of an Imperial Circuit Supervisor of the Tang Empire is actually rather boring. Xuanji seems to have made false confessions after being tortured, while superstitious local people talk about Black Fox Spirits. Xuanji is a “confessional poet”, writing about the traits and characteristics, weaknesses and flaws of her many lovers, very often men of the elite Tang class. Dee faces a long list of possible petty jealousies and rivalries that could have led to the murder and framing of the poet – scorned lovers, embarrassing details exposed, jealous wives, angry Taoist nuns! Judge Dee assembles a cast of suspects that includes talkative booksellers, observant bridesmaids, deceitful court officials, stalwart peasant bodyguards, and poetic Buddhist monks. But no spoilers here.
With the publication of In the shadow of the empire (2021) Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong is rebooting the long-running and much-loved Judge Dee series – reviving the franchise, movie execs might say. Dee first appeared in an anonymous 18th-century Chinese novel, The Di Gong An. Robert van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat, erudite Sinologist and fluent Mandarin reader, came across a copy in an antique bookstore while posted to the Dutch Embassy in Tokyo on the eve of World War II. world. He decided to translate it into English. When Germany invaded Holland, van Gulik moved to the Free Netherlands Embassy in Chongqing, China’s war capital. He married a Chinese woman, Shui Shifang, and they had several children. After the war, he dusted off his translation, which was finally published in Tokyo in 1949 under the title The Famous Cases of Judge Dee. Subsequently, van Gulik began writing his own original Judge Dee mysteries, building on the character of Famous cases and the author’s academic knowledge of Tang Dynasty China. The Chinese Labyrinth Murders appeared in 1950. His last novel Judge Dee, Poets and Murderwas published posthumously in 1968, a year after the author’s death, and serves as the inspiration for In the shadow of the empire. A total of twenty-four widely read, translated and highly rated novels, plus a Dutch newspaper comic strip.
The novels quickly became popular internationally, especially in various Asian countries. In the introduction to The Chinese Bell Murders (1958), van Gulik was keen to link his novels to the idea of a somewhat lost tradition of detective writing in East Asia, “to show modern Chinese and Japanese writers that their own ancient detective literature has much of sources for detective and mystery. -stories.”
Van Gulik was not the first 20th century author to create a Chinese storyteller. English author Ernest Bramah had achieved commercial success with his series featuring Kai Lung, “a traveling storyteller”, published between 1900 and the early 1940s. Kai Lung’s books are not mysteries, but rather collections of often humorous tales written in a mock form of relentlessly honorific, and now rather silly Chinese. Bramah had no special knowledge of China. A little later, American author Earl Derr Biggars created Chinese-Hawaiian detective Charlie Chan in half a dozen rather good novels that spawned a long afterlife of horribly clichéd Hollywood films that left a bad taste. in the mouths of modern audiences. American pulp fiction magazines of the interwar period saw many attempts against other Chinese detectives. But none have withstood both time and changing sensibilities as well as Judge Dee. This is because van Gulik’s Dee is generally free of clumsy pranks or banal false philosophers, while being, given van Guilk’s academic background as a serious Sinologist, full of revealing anecdotes and profound detail. on Tang Dynasty China and Confucian thought processes.
Indeed, Dee has maintained popularity in China thanks to van Gulik’s books. They have often been translated and republished with several television series also featuring the judge. This popularity has perhaps been bolstered over the past decade with the increased (and state-sanctioned) interest in Confucianism, as well as the popularity (now rather wary of the same state) of intrigue soap operas. long-standing palace.
And now the best-known Chinese mystery writer is bringing the Judge Dee franchise to life. Originally from Shanghai, Qiu Xiaolong is a TS Eliot scholar who has lived and taught in St Louis for a long time. Judge Dee shares many common traits with Qiu’s best-known and oldest character, Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau. Chen has now featured in a dozen instances ranging from 1990s “Wild East” Shanghai to the more arid and politically perilous contemporary metropolis. Both Dee and Chen engage in brain detective work, both are regularly drawn into politically sensitive cases, and both are poets (as is Qiu and is indeed a translator of Yu Xuanji’s poetry). Poetic achievement was considered an essential skill for the learned man of letters during the Tang; although it must be said, it is a less valued art for 21st century Shanghai police inspectors.
Qiu himself first read Van Gulik and then the Di Gong An soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Then, in the early 1980s, a classmate of Qiu wrote an article praising Judge Dee in the state newspaper, the Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), and so Qiu began to seriously read van Gulik’s books.
Qiu’s first book on Dee is also in many ways a Tang dynasty version of Inspector Chen’s more recent case, published almost simultaneously. Inspector Chen and the world of private cooking (2021). No longer a police detective, Chen now serves as director of Shanghai’s Judicial Reform Bureau – a job potentially even more perilous than that of chief inspector, and not unlike a modern version of an imperial circuit supervisor of the Tang Empire. It also happens that in Private kitchen world Inspector Chen is reading a Judge Dee novel.
For his part, Qiu Xiaolong alludes to the idea of Inspector Chen writing these new Judge Dee novels! Like Dee, Chen survived the infighting and bickering of China’s recent past. How does he manage to survive multiple times? According to Qiu, trying to find answers in light of Chinese history. Therein, for the author of both Inspector Chen and now the newly revived Judge Dee, are the parallels between Judge and Inspector.